Throughout the playoffs, we’ll have you covered for all your DFS needs on SI.com. I will bring you a positional breakdown every Friday and an ultimate lineup every Saturday. Meanwhile, Pat Fitzmaurice will bring you his DFS picks, along with a lineup of his own, giving you two points of view to help you craft your lineups all the way through the conference championship games.
This week, we’re typically going to want to focus our resources in the air. Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch, the two most expensive running backs, have to deal with the extreme cold in Minnesota. Peterson has a terrible matchup with Seattle, while Lynch could still be compromised coming off a sports hernia, an injury that could be exacerbated by the cold.
Passing games are going to be more bankable this week, as they were all season. We’ll leave the advocacy for the weekend, however. In this column, we’ll provide you with a largely agnostic view of all four primary positions.
The quarterbacks of wild-card weekend are conveniently divided into four tiers. This is the one position that really takes on a new personality in the playoffs. With just eight quarterbacks available, there aren’t a multitude of options at any price point. You also won’t find any low ownership rates on the attractive options, either, something that is inevitable every week of the regular season. More than ever, you want to find your quarterback and trust him, regardless of price.
It starts at the top with Russell Wilson ($8,600) and Ben Roethlisberger ($8,400). Wilson torched Minnesota in the Twin Cities just about a month ago, throwing for 274 yards, 10.15 yards per attempt and three touchdowns, while running for 51 yards and another score on the ground. However, that game got away from the Vikings by the middle of the second quarter, one of those anomalies you see in the regular season but rarely in the playoffs. Minnesota also played that game without star defensive tackle Linval Joseph. The elements could be on the Vikings’ side, too, with potential record lows expected for Minneapolis on Sunday. Few quarterbacks were hotter than Wilson in the second half of the season, but you have to keep all of that in mind, as well as his price, when rostering him.
If you want to listen to Vegas, Roethlisberger is probably your guy. The Steelers are laying three points in the game with the highest over/under (46). That suggests they’ll be the highest-scoring team of wild card weekend. Remember, though, that Roethlisberger had two of his worst games of the season against Cincinnati. To be fair, the first time these teams met was Roethlisberger’s first game after his four-week absence because of a knee injury; he threw for 262 yards, 5.82 YPA, one touchdown and three interceptions in an eventual Pittsburgh loss. When the teams played in Cincinnati five weeks later, he had 282 yards, 7.23 YPA, no touchdowns and one pick. DeAngelo Williams being ruled out with an ankle injury is actually a bad thing for Roethlisberger. Sure, he could get more volume, but the Steelers’ passing game is better off when the running game is a legitimate threat. Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman won’t exactly scare the Cincinnati defense.
The next tier features a pair of quarterbacks who will face off on Sunday. Aaron Rodgers ($8,100) and Kirk Cousins ($8,000) will take FedEx Field in the only game that features a favored home team. No one would have guessed four months ago that Washington would have the more dangerous passing game between these teams, but that is, indeed, the case. Cousins, Jordan Reed, DeSean Jackson, and the supporting cast in Washington certainly outpace Aaron Rodgers and his disappointing weapons. Rodgers is, of course, the sort of quarterback who is always dangerous, but he put up a paltry 5.97 YPA over the last 10 games of the season. Cousins, meanwhile, ended the season with a bang, throwing for 860 yards, 9.66 YPA and 11 touchdowns in 2.5 games. This game figures to be the best overall environment for quarterbacks, with one bad passing defense (Washington), one hot passing offense (Washington), a razor-thin spread (Washington -1) and an over/under of 45.5.
Tier No. 3 also includes two quarterbacks who will oppose each other this weekend. It’s also the one with the least upside, all things considered. The over/under on Chiefs-Texans is 40, and these are two teams driven by their defenses. The Chiefs don’t move the ball vertically, while the Texans only do because DeAndre Hopkins is so good. That makes Alex Smith ($7,100) and Brian Hoyer ($6,900) relatively unattractive for daily fantasy purposes. One reason we look at quarterbacks in this range during the regular season is that we have to find value somewhere, and the guys here can provide it, while also carrying the intriguing quality of low ownership rates. Value isn’t nearly as important when there are just eight teams in action, meaning fewer ways to concentrate your resources in high-priced players. It’s entirely possible to pay all the way up to Wilson or Roethlisberger without having to sacrifice much elsewhere. Finding savings is the only reason you’d consider Smith or Hoyer, and that just isn’t necessary this week.
Finally, we have the bottom tier of Teddy Bridgewater ($6,700) and A.J. McCarron ($6,400). There’s still a chance that Andy Dalton ($7,900) returns this week, and then he’d be one of the most intriguing options. For now, however, we’ll assume McCarron gets the start. He played nearly an entire game against Pittsburgh, throwing for 280 yards, 8.75 YPA, two touchdowns and two interceptions after Dalton left with a broken thumb. Still, he has but two factors going for him in this game. First, you’ll get a regular-season style low-ownership rate. Second, he’ll give you the freedom to throw around philanthropic Bill Gates levels of money at every other position. Same goes for Bridgewater, but it’s awfully hard to get on board with him in the subzero temperatures against Seattle. Adrian Peterson and the defense pave the Vikings’ path to victory. Bridgewater is nothing more than a conduit for getting the ball in Peterson’s hands.
This position was ugly enough during the regular season, when we had all 32 teams in action. With just eight taking the field this weekend, it’s hard to find two running backs fantasy owners can really feel good about playing.
At the top of the position, we have Adrian Peterson ($8,400), DeAngelo Williams ($8,100) and Marshawn Lynch ($7,800). Williams was ruled out on Friday due to his ankle injury. Peterson is Minnesota’s best hope for a victory, but he’ll likely be playing at less than 100% because of a back issue and is facing a Seattle run defense that ranked third in Football Outsiders DVOA against the run. On the other side of that game is Lynch, who will be back on the field for the first time in nearly two months.
Lynch is the only high-priced back I’m considering when building my lineups this week. Despite the fact that he’ll likely share duties with Christine Michael, and the extreme cold in Minnesota could tighten his abdominal injury, the Seahawks are heavy favorites in a game with an over/under south of 40. That’s a great formula for a running back. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s run defense was just 18th in DVOA. Thomas Rawls ran for 101 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries against the Vikings. Lynch should be able to have the same per-carry success.
The next rung down the ladder includes Jeremy Hill ($6,700), Christine Michael ($6,500), Charcandrick West ($6,400) and Eddie Lacy ($6,000). For cash-game purposes, the only one I’d really look at is Lacy. First, we can quickly eliminate Michael. His floor is too questionable with Lynch back in the fold for Seattle. You’re also fooling yourself into seeing something that isn’t there if you’re going with Jeremy Hill. He had three games with 4.5 yards per carry or more this season. They were against the Rams, Browns and Ravens. In two games against Pittsburgh, he had 76 yards on 22 carries. The Steelers’ rush defense was fifth in DVOA in the regular season, and the Bengals are going to have to make plays down the field to win this game. If this game were played 10 times, Hill would deliver perhaps two or three useful fantasy performances. Finally, the Chiefs are committed to their pairing of West and Spencer Ware, and Houston’s defense is going to be tough on both of them. You may not get more than 12 or 13 touches out of West, and he’s not the sort of back you want to bet on if the volume is lacking.
Lacy, on the other hand, is safely ahead of James Starks in Green Bay’s backfield and has a solid matchup with Washington’s 22nd-ranked rush defense by DVOA. As frustrating as he was all regular season, the Packers are desperate for his production in this game. Rodgers can’t simply carry them to 30 points with one arm tied behind his back with this collection of weapons. Not only do they need his punch for what it provides directly, they need to establish the run to open up the play-action passing game, which might be the only way these Green Bay receivers are going to get separation on Sunday. Lacy is very possibly the key to the Packers’ hopes of advancing to the divisional round.
The next tier is where the position gets really interesting. Here is where we find Starks ($5,800), who has carved out a decent role for himself in Green Bay; Toussaint and Todman ($5,700), who would split the backfield duties for Pittsburgh if Williams is out; Alfred Blue ($5,700), who ran for more yards over the season’s last three weeks than any other running back in the playoffs; and Giovani Bernard ($5,600), whose skill set and role for Cincinnati is well known. We also have Alfred Morris ($5,500), who could dominate the carries for the weekend’s lone home favorite, and an offense that is playing its best football of the season.
The two Alfreds intrigue me. Out of all the players in this price range, they’re the two who figure to play a significant role should their teams come away with a victory. There’s no way the Texans beat the Chiefs without Blue having one of his better games of the year. Morris would because Washington’s offense drives everything it does as a team. Matt Jones (hip) will almost certainly miss this game, and while Pierre Thomas should have a major role as a pass catcher, Morris should get 16-plus carries in a close game. Blue, meanwhile, carried the ball 66 times over the last three weeks of the season. In what’s expected to be a game dominated by both defenses, the rushing attacks will be paramount. Unlike West, though, Blue won’t have to split carries with anyone in meaningful fashion.
If you’re looking to get crazy, your remaining choices are Jerick McKinnon ($5,500), Spencer Ware ($5,400), Matt Asiata ($5,000), Chris Thompson ($4,800) and Pierre Thomas ($4,500).
There’s a tier of one at the top with the best receiver in the NFL. I’m not going to waste too much time selling you on Antonio Brown ($9,500). The guy almost certainly would have topped 2,000 yards if Ben Roethlisberger had been healthy for all 16 games. I will note, however, that he had just (by his standards) 13 catches for 134 yards and one touchdown in two games against the Bengals. And having said that, he will be in 100% of my lineups this weekend.
DeAndre Hopkins ($8,800) and A.J. Green ($8,300) make up tier No. 2 at the position. With the value present at running back, it’s entirely possible to pair one of these guys with Brown. Hopkins torched the Chiefs way back in Week 1, catching nine of his 13 targets for 98 yards and two touchdowns. He’ll likely spend most of the week lined up across from Marcus Peters, a rookie corner whose performance has been mostly good but has fluctuated over the season. Houston needs Hopkins’s offense more than Cincinnati needs Green’s, but as the week drags on I find myself increasingly intrigued by the latter. He had two of his best games of the season against the Steelers, totaling 17 grabs for 250 yards and two touchdowns. What’s more, the second was with A.J. McCarron at the helm for all but the first drive of the game. If you’re a believer in Roethlisberger and Brown on one side of this game, it’s only natural that you would want to bet on Green coming through, as well. If Pittsburgh’s passing game succeeds, the volume will be there for Green.
Everyone is going to have at least one receiver from the next few tiers, which makes identifying the right guys priced between $5,500 and $7,300 one of the keys to coming away with profits this weekend. Let’s start at the top, where we have Doug Baldwin ($7,300), Jeremy Maclin ($7,200), DeSean Jackson ($7,000) and Martavis Bryant ($6,900).
Baldwin turned into Jerry Rice for a five-week stretch during the season’s second half, and he’s unquestionably the top target in Seattle. At the same time, the weather in Minnesota is going to make it awfully tough on both offenses, especially through the air. You don’t want to fade Baldwin out of hand because of his recent performance, but we have enough evidence of single-digit temperatures killing passing games to have reason to be dubious. Maclin averaged 17.1 FanDuel points per game over the final six weeks of the season, putting up at least 13.4 points in all but one of those contests. Back in Week 1, however, it was Travis Kelce who carried the Kansas City passing attack, with Maclin adding five catches for 52 yards. Again, in a game expected to be a slugfest, how much trust do you put in its receivers? If you’re going to roster Maclin, you should probably believe that the Chiefs are going to advance. This isn’t going to be the sort of game where a receiver can rack up, say, 150 yards and a touchdown in a loss.
Jackson is attractive on the surface, but take a look at the receivers who have given the Packers trouble this season: Demaryius Thomas. Amari Cooper. Keenan Allen. Alshon Jeffery. These are big, physical receivers. You don’t see too many speed-first types like Jackson burning Green Bay’s secondary. There’s plenty of reason to buy into Cousins, but his stack partner this week is Jordan Reed. Bryant’s disappointing season reached a nadir that could actually help him going into Saturday’s game with Cincinnati. Both Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin called him out publicly, saying he needs to be tougher and, quite simply, play better. At the same time, both realize how integral Bryant is to their hopes of advancing deep into the playoffs. He may have been outpaced by Markus Wheaton in yards per target, but Bryant remains a significant downfield weapon. The Steelers want to push the ball vertically more than any team in the NFL, with the possible exception of Arizona. Expect Bryant to get a handful of deep targets, any one of which could make him a fantasy star.
Nine more receivers check in at $5,500 or more for wild-card weekend. The list begins with Randall Cobb ($6,500), Pierre Garcon ($6,300) and Tyler Lockett ($6,200). Cobb is no more than a guaranteed prize pool play this week. The matchup is great, but that hasn’t really mattered all year. He scored fewer than 10 points in each of the last three games of the year, and had fewer than 11 in eight of the last 10. Contrarianism is the only impetus to push you toward Cobb. Garcon scored in each of his final three games of the regular season, but he’s totally reliant on finding the end zone to provide any sort of fantasy value. Like Cobb, he’s solely a GPP play. It’s Lockett who stands out here. First, he provides a pivot off of Baldwin, who will be very popular. Second, he was very good the first time Seattle played Minnesota, catching seven passes for 90 yards. He’s dealing with a hip injury, and he, too, will have to deal with the elements, but he’s $1,100 cheaper than Baldwin, meaning the investment won’t hurt nearly as much if it doesn’t come through.
Next up are Jermaine Kearse ($6,000), Wheaton ($5,900), and Stefon Diggs ($5,800). Kearse and Diggs are awfully tough to get behind. Both will have the weather working against them. Kearse is no more than the third option in Seattle’s passing game, and has three games with more than five targets this year. Unless you see a specific facet of the Green Bay secondary he can exploit (I don’t), he’s no more than a low-value GPP play. To be fair, two of those were in the final four weeks of the season. Diggs, meanwhile, also has to contend with Seattle’s defense, which was third in DVOA against the pass this year. Even in GPPs, I’m staying away from Diggs.
Finally, we have the Joneses, James of Green Bay ($5,700) and Marvin of Cincinnati ($5,500). Both are attractive as punt plays, giving you plenty of flexibility across the rest of your roster. However, it’s hard to get behind Marvin with McCarron under center. In McCarron’s four games, Jones had 18 catches for 221 yards, coming out to an average of 4.5 catches for 55.25 yards. James Jones, however, is quite the sneaky play this weekend. First of all, Washington rated 19th in pass DVOA overall, and 30th against No. 2 receivers. What’s more, he leads the team in targets since Mike McCarthy took back play-calling duties in Week 14. Before that week, he had 13% of the team’s targets. Since then, he’s up to 28%.
Nearly all the ownership at this position will be tied up in four players. There’s one truly elite option who warrants plenty of attention, but after him the position is a grab bag. It also features one of the best value plays of the weekend.
Let’s start with Reed ($7,400), who has turned into one of the best tight ends in the league this year. His ownership rate should be at least as high as Cousins’s, with that being one of the most bankable stacks this weekend. When you’re thinking about Reed, you shouldn’t be comparing him to the other players at his own position, but rather the similarly priced backs and receivers. That’s the opportunity cost associated with him this week. Reed is a matchup-proof option, but understand that the Packers ranked fourth in DVOA against tight ends this season. He’s going to have a real test on his hands on Sunday.
Tyler Eifert ($6,400) and Kelce ($6,200) sit snugly in the second tier of tight ends, with both offering their virtues. They offer significant savings off Reed, while also serving as top-two options in their respective passing attacks. There is a good reason, however, that they are so much cheaper than Reed. Eifert was a touchdown machine this season, but he had more than 60 yards in a game just three times. How many touchdown drives will Cincinnati be capable of putting together with McCarron under center? Do you want to bet on Eifert getting one of the, say, three touchdowns Cincinnati scores on Pittsburgh, while also paying $6,400 for the privilege of rostering him? The Steelers did allow the eighth-most fantasy points to tight ends this year.
Kelce had his best game of the season against the Texans in Week 1, catching six passes for 106 yards and two touchdowns. However, he didn’t take off as expected, especially after that big game to start the year, and Houston had one of the best defenses in the second half of the season, ending the year seventh in overall pass DVOA and ninth against tight ends. Again, if you’re going to commit $6,200 at tight end this week, you better be sure of what you’re getting. Kelce could very well fall short of his name-brand value.
That brings us to Heath Miller ($5,600), one of wild card weekend’s biggest values. In two games against the Bengals this season, Miller had 20 catches for 171 yards. He put up an average of 13.7 FanDuel points per game in those meetings, which would more than turn a profit at his price tag. You don’t haul in 10 passes against the same team in two different games by accident. There’s something about this matchup that works for Miller and the Steelers, and they should go back to it plenty on Saturday. Miller is great for both cash games and GPPs.
Punt options at the position include Richard Rodgers ($5,200), Kyle Rudolph ($5,100), Luke Willson ($4,800), Ryan Griffin ($4,800), and, if Willson is out because of his concussion, Cooper Helfet ($4,500). You can squint and see some value in Rodgers, Rudolph and Willson, but the latter two have the weather to contend with, while the former is one of the greatest fantasy bluffs of the 2015 season. Take out that Hail Mary game-winning touchdown against the Lions, and Rodgers averaged 7.4 FanDuel points per game.
Check back on Saturday for my ultimate lineup for wild-card weekend.